The Fourth Commandment

With the Fourth Commandment (“Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you” (Exodus 20:12)), we begin to enter into territory that is closer to what we call “natural law”. Basically, the command to honor your father and mother is one of those things knowable to anybody with a pulse. It is (or would seem) to be up there with stuff like “Don’t murder”. It’s one of those things that even pagan piety spoke highly of. And so not a few moderns ask the same question as Christopher Hitchens: In what sense is this common sense injunction to observe normal social requirements “revealed”?

It’s a question that is fairly potent—as long as we go on speaking of family in the abstract. If all families were like the Cleavers or the Huxtables, it would be a snap to honor your father and mother. But given the R-rated story of the family that is the Old Testament (and quite possibly our) family, the commandment comes into clearer focus. The bottom line is this: God doesn’t command us to obey the law of gravity. Why? Because we will, whether we like it or not. But in the case of the “natural law” commandments of the Decalogue, there will always be moments when what appears to be easy and natural suddenly becomes a radical challenge to what we would, in our fleshly mind, want to do.So when Dad comes home three sheets to wind for the umpteenth time, or Mom ditches Dad, you and the siblings to take up with some boy toy personal trainer and (as she wrote in the farewell letter) “do what I need to do for me”… well, that’s when the command to honor your father and mother gets a severe test.

Similarly, all the little aggravations of domestic life can pile up. That story Dad tells guests about the stupid thing you did when you were nine. Mom’s racist hissing about “those people”. Dad farting in front of the guy you are trying to impress on your first date and then (cringe) drawing even more attention to it with lame jokes about barking spiders. The chintziness, the small-mindedness, the bullying, the neglect, the violence—all the various ways in which our parents can make us wish we were adopted. All these and a million more things make the obviousness of the Fourth Commandment fade into the void when we have some beef, whether real or imagined, against our parents, grandparents, or some other authority/parental figure.

Hence, the commandment, which acts as a sort of anchor to say, “Yes, it’s tempting to toss the old goat overboard right now. But stop. Cool off. Remember your sacred obligation.”

It’s worth noting that the Old Testament, even as it enshrines this commandment as one of the Big Ten, does not hesitate to offer some very harsh critiques of a great many parental figures. Indeed, the Jewish tradition (and the Christian tradition following it) manages to couple the command to Honor Your Father and Mother with some of the most vociferous (and unique) language of criticism in the ancient world. Where pagan literature is all about the glories of the King who is Father to his People, his Most Favored Monarch status with the gods, and his inexorable power, Hebrew Scripture is full to bursting with frank assessments of kings who, for the most part “did what was evil in the eyes of the Lord” and of constant declarations that not only “we” but “our fathers” did what was wicked and were justly punished for it by the Lord. It is not far off the mark to say that, virtually alone in the ancient world, the Jews invented the entire genre of penitent, self-critical literature and practiced the most withering form of raw and brutal self-assessment of their national faults and failings—and those of their ancestors.

Nor does this stop with the birth of the New Covenant, Jesus speaks as a typical Jewish prophet when he blasts the elders in Jerusalem with:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ Thus you witness against yourselves, that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. (Matthew 23:29-35)

Note, once again, the typical habit of the Hebrew prophet in linking the sins of father and son, not so much by blood as by the fact that they make the same sinful choices. Indeed, Jesus’ cavalier disregard for the connections of blood were famous—and infamous to his detractors. He replies to typical florid Oriental flattery about the blessedness of the mother who bore him and nursed him with, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” (Luke 11: 28) Still more shocking to first century Family Values, he declares,

If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26)

Put yourself in the shoes of an average Jew of the time and listen to the Master saying

Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s foes will be those of his own household. He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. (Matthew 10:34-37)

Would you trust your daughter to go join the Unification Church if you heard that from Rev. Moon? Many of Jesus’ contemporaries felt exactly the same way and regarded him as a manifest enemy of the family.

And yet, paradoxically, nothing else in the history of the world has been a greater friend of the family and the hearth than the Church Christ founded. What is the answer to this riddle? It is found in Jesus’ own remarks about dying to self to find life. A culture that raises family and the ties of blood to the supreme good is a culture that cannot get past tribal allegiances. This was the great stumbling block of the Jews: Jesus accepted The Wrong Sort of people. Not just prostitutes and tax collectors and such riff-raff, but foreigners: Samaritan half-breeds, Syro-Phoenician dogs and even Roman thugs who had long ago worn out their welcome what with oppression, murder, and general raiding of the public kitty. The notion that these awful people could somehow now be chosen right along with Israel was more than many in Israel could take.

And yet, it was so and the Church is the living proof. Since the coming of Christ, the supernatural family of the covenant has expanded to include anybody who would accept baptism. That’s what Catholic means. The Christian picture is not “‘Honor God’ versus. “Honor your parents’” but rather is “Honor God First” followed by “Honor your parents”.

Of course, the challenge to honor one’s parents goes on through all generations and my generation has not done a bang-up job. As that most narcissistic and self-absorbed generation in human history—the Baby Boomers—is slowly discovering, revelation is a description of the way things are, not of the way we wish things were. So that little tag—“that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you” turns out to be not a threat so much as a Product Warning Label placed on the human person by the Manufacturer. Ignore it at your peril just as you ignore the “Don’t use the hair dryer in the shower” label at your peril.

We clever Boomers set about reinventing everything from culture to religion to sex in the confident assurance that we could do it right and that our fathers and mothers were fools for countless generations past. We bid fair to end by proving that we excel their parents in one special way: by being greater fools than any other generation. Generation Narcissus, extolling itself for discovering sex in the 60s and 70s for the very first time in human history, is also the generation that discovered AIDS, a massive STD rate, massive destruction of the family and a staggering abortion death toll so that we could go on indulging ourselves. The generation that praises itself endlessly for first figuring out that war is bad and laughing off the dummies who fought Hitler, Tojo and the Commies (“Never trust anyone over thirty!”) has ended by marching its children off to a foolish war of choice in Iraq. The Flower Children who lectured their Depression-era parents on simplicity and getting back to the earth have brought the economies of the world to the brink of collapse with their reckless self-indulgence. And the Discovers of New Spiritual Pathways from the Age of Aquarius have chased after everything from Jim Jones to Pyramid Power in their cocksure certainty that they have it figured out.

Moral: We are dwarfs who stand on the shoulders of giants. When we do not honor our fathers and mothers we succeed only in creating a world where our children have nothing to honor in us. Indeed, my heart goes out to Gen X and Y as they try to rise to the challenge of honoring their Generation Narcissus parents. It does not surprise me at all that millions of them simply looked over their parents heads to the generation that preceded them and celebrated the Greatest Generation or went in droves to hear Pope John Paul II speak. More power to those folks.

On the other hand, there is also the reality that kids imitate their parents. Generation Narcissus has, like every generation, helped to create a world in which the young will imitate us. Many of the young who survive Generation Narcissus’ assault on unborn life will learn an important lesson: inconvenient people should be killed. When Generation Narcissus gets too old to change the Beatles CD and the children get restless and impatient with their self-absorbed and increasingly inconvenient parents, that lesson will, I fear, be acted upon. That’s a world in which all our improvements upon the Ten Commandments will be tested by fire and found wanting. The remedy, as ever, is hard and simple: Repent, and believe the Good News.

Mark Shea

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Mark P. Shea is a Catholic author, blogger, and speaker.

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  • patti

    Well said. There’s always two sides to this coin. So often a difficult or unreasonable parent can make us feel like we get a free pass on the Fourth Commandment. Thanks for reminding us that what goes around comes around. No doubt, our own kids will think we are wrong and unreasonable on some of the issues we hold dear. I think there’s a “trickle down” theory in obedience that passes down through the generations. That means that the strong willed, rebellious among us will likely experience some pay-back with our own kids. At least that’s the way it seems from where I sit.

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